Minors hit rock bottom
Defeat to Westmeath on home soil a crushing blow
The GAA community countywide woke up on Sunday morning to a harsh, unacceptable reality: Wexford had been dumped out of the Electric Ireland Leinster Minor hurling championship by Westmeath before a stunned Innovate Wexford Park crowd on the previous afternoon.
Westmeath 2-11 Wexford 0-15
And despite the immediate attempts from some official quarters to talk up the opposition and proffer lame excuses, it's as simple as this: Wexford should never lose a championship game at home to Westmeath no matter what level of hurling, and it's just not good enough.
That isn't meant to be disrespectful to the midlanders who thoroughly deserved their victory and will have every neutral on their side ahead of the semi-final on June 20. Indeed, it was clear to see just how much it meant to them at the end, and the bounce created by the win was immediately felt in Mullingar on Sunday when their Seniors hammered Antrim in the Leinster championship.
From Wexford's point of view, this joins the list of crushing defeats at under-age level which also includes the Minor losses to Carlow in 2006 and Laois in 2013, and the Under-21 exit against Antrim two seasons ago. The fact that the latest setback came on our own soil made it even harder to take.
It's difficult to understand how this was essentially the same team which ran Kilkenny so close at the same venue a fortnight earlier, with Ian Carty the only notable absentee. And although Wexford led twice in the opening quarter, they never edged ahead of Westmeath again once the visitors drew level in the 15th minute.
And after conceding two goals in the first eight minutes after the break, Wexford restored parity twice but could never get their noses in front.
Two late pointed frees from the talented Doyle brothers, Killian and Ciarán, sealed their fate, with the high tally of 13 wides - including five scoreable frees - compared to six from the opposition of major significance.
It was only the third Minor championship clash between the counties since the first year of the competition in 1928, and remarkably Westmeath now lead the head-to-head 2-1 as they won in 1936 while Wexford prevailed in 1967.
The imposing physical strength of some of the winners' forwards knocked the home side off their stride from an early stage, and if a gameplan was deployed by the mentors it wasn't evident in a contest which was a struggle for Wexford from the off.
Ciarán Doyle and Ciarán O'Connor swapped early frees before Conor Firman's delivery set up Jack Pettit for the lead point in the sixth minute. The strong and talented Doyle levelled from another free before his pass inside was seized by his brother, Killian, who restored the underdogs' lead.
Ciarán Doyle doubled their advantage from a free which was cancelled out by O'Connor before Stephen O'Gorman equalised in the 13th minute.
O'Connor then pushed Wexford into a 0-5 to 0-4 lead after a foul on Seamus Casey, but Westmeath were sticking manfully to their tough task and were rewarded with three points on the trot.
Killian Doyle was first to strike before Ciarán Doyle converted a free and, when the puck-out was sent straight back out to him, he returned it over the bar with interest for a 0-7 to 0-5 lead.
The number 14 scored from all bar one of his first-half frees and quickly widened the gap to three points.
However, Ciarán O'Connor wasn't so successful at the other end in a six-minute spell as his strike rate of two from four left Wexford trailing by 0-8 to 0-7 at the break.
The home side ended the half with seven wides compared to two for Westmeath, with their best goal chance coming in the 29th minute when Mikey Dwyer slipped a handpass to Joe O'Connor whose shot was saved by Aaron McHugh.
O'Connor had moved to left half-forward with Dwyer going to the edge of the square in a move which also brought Jack Pettit to the '40 and Stephen O'Gorman to the right corner of the attack.
Ciarán O'Connor shot wide from another free on the re-start before the duties were handed to Joe O'Connor, but not before Wexford were rocked by the concession of a goal in the 33rd minute. Ciarán Doyle's high ball into the town end goal was caught by his brother, Killian, whose effort was half-hit, but Paddy Doody was on hand to fire the break high to the net (1-8 to 0-7).
Wexford initially looked to have weathered the storm as Joe O'Connor punished a stray Westmeath handpass with a point before setting up Jack Pettit for another, and then the St. Martin's attacker earned a free which he converted.
However, Westmeath's second goal arrived in the 38th minute and it was no surprise that the Doyle brothers did the damage as they were the game's two dominant figures and Wexford had no answers to the constant threat they posed.
This time a Westmeath puck-out down the middle broke favourably for Ciarán who rampaged through before handpassing to his right at the ideal time, and Killian made no mistake to leave the travelling supporters dreaming of glory (2-8 to 0-10).
They weren't happy with referee Maurice Flynn though, and Wexford were awarded eight second-half frees before the eventual winners got their first in the 19th minute.
By that stage the Slaneysiders had drawn level as Joe O'Connor sent over two frees and Jack Pettit struck his third point from play in between, before the leveller came from O'Connor after another poor Westmeath clearance.
Unfortunately, he also missed a very scoreable free in that period, but the game still looked poised for a narrow Wexford win as they entered the last ten minutes on level terms (0-14 to 2-8).
Westmeath simply wouldn't let them edge ahead though which was a great tribute to their tenacity and ability. Instead the next point came from Killian Doyle who punished a poorly-struck Wexford line ball.
Joe O'Connor missed another free before splitting the posts with his next effort in the 55th minute, and we still harboured hopes of an unconvincing win. Wexford followers would have taken a victory in any shape or form at that stage, but it wasn't to be.
Joe O'Connor missed his third free which was from a very good position in front of the posts, whereas Westmeath made the most of their chances.
Ciarán Doyle earned a free in the 58th minute which Killian converted while the big man got his breath back.
And the last score was fashioned by the deadly duo again as Killian was clearly fouled in the right corner and Ciarán's shot soared between the posts to crown one of the best days in Westmeath's hurling history.
This wasn't a hard luck story, and we have no grounds for complaint either; even that in itself makes it somewhat tougher to stomach because the stark truth is that a Wexford team was out-hurled and out-fought by Westmeath in our own back yard. And like I wrote at the outset, that's simply not on.
Wexford: Oisín Foley; Seán Barden, Brian Quigley, David Clarke; Ciarán Kirwan, Aaron Maddock (capt.), Conor Firman; Ciarán O'Connor (0-5 frees), Damien Reck; Rowan White, Joe O'Connor (0-6, 4 frees), Stephen O'Gorman (0-1); Seamus Casey, Jack Pettit (0-3), Mikey Dwyer. Subs. - Darren Codd for Kirwan (25), Rory O'Connor for O'Gorman (34), Murtha Doyle for Dwyer (41), Connal Flood for Casey (57).
Westmeath: Aaron McHugh; Darragh Qamar, Kevin Regan, Seánie Lancaster; James Bermingham, Peadar Scally (capt.), Darragh Egerton; Joe Rabbitte, Jack O'Brien; James Goonery, Ciarán Doyle (0-7, 6 frees), Niall Mitchell; Paddy Doody (1-0), John McCarthy, Killian Doyle (1-4, 0-1 free). Subs. - Warren Williams for Goonery (57), Naoise McKenna for McCarthy (60).
Referee: Maurice Flynn (Kilkenny).